The fight for historical truth about the Holocaust in Ukraine

The current conflict with Russia has further radicalized the Ukrainian approach to historical memory.

A Jewish boy stands by a memorial at Baby Yar in Kiev in 1996.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Jewish boy stands by a memorial at Baby Yar in Kiev in 1996.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union slightly more than a quarter of a century ago, the role played by local Nazi collaborators in Holocaust crimes has been a bone of contention throughout eastern Europe. Rather than adopting the accepted Western chronicle of World War II and the Holocaust, local authorities in many Eastern European post-Communist countries have sought to create an alternative narrative of the events in order to achieve two major objectives.
The first objective is to hide, or at least minimize, the role played by local Nazi collaborators in the annihilation of European Jewry.
In this regard, it is important to note that only in Eastern Europe did assistance to the Nazis include active participation in mass murder. Although the Nazis’ local helpers throughout Europe were involved everywhere in the implementation of the initial stages of the Final Solution (which constitutes being an accessory to murder), only in the East, where a large percentage of the victims were shot to death near their homes rather than being deported to death camps in German-occupied Poland, were the collaborators fully integrated into the mass murder operations.
Thus, the Holocaust is not denied in countries such as Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Croatia and the Baltic states, but is portrayed as if it were almost exclusively the handiwork of Germans and Austrians, with little or no assistance from the local population. And in those few cases in which the guilt of local collaborators is acknowledged, they are often referred to as marginal or criminal elements of the local society.
The second objective is to convince world opinion that the crimes of the Soviet Union and its satellite Communist regimes were equally evil when compared to those of the Nazis, and that these crimes, too, constituted genocide. Historically inaccurate, the canard of equivalency is politically of central importance to certain quarters in Eastern and Central Europe where, by claiming to be victims of the worst crime imaginable, they seek to deflect or avoid painful discussions about local participation by their nationals in Holocaust crimes.
This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in Ukraine.
A subtext of this issue is that among the Communist criminals were Jews, a factor that helps neutralize Jewish accusations against local Nazi collaborators in Eastern Europe. Also of importance in this regard is the fact that quite a few of the leaders of the anti-Soviet resistance in Ukraine during and/or after World War II, who since independence are being glorified as national heroes, played a role in the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust, something that complicates an open and honest reckoning with the past. In addition, we are witness to laws passed in the Baltic states that criminalize denials that Communist crimes constituted genocide, and in Poland, where they outlaw criticism of the behavior of Poles toward Jews during the war.
EARLIER THIS MONTH, a conference took place in Paris, on the premises of the Sorbonne, which brought together a number of highly respectable scholars with expertise on various aspects of the Holocaust. Among the people invited were Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINR), a government agency established in 2006 to entrench a nationalist narrative of Ukrainian history.
The wisdom of providing Viatrovych a platform has been questioned by a number of specialists in the field.
For more than a decade, Viatrovych has been affiliated with an organization called the Center for the Study of the Liberation Movement (TsDVR in Ukrainian). The liberation movement in question is the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a radical nationalistic organization established in 1929 whose World War II-era armed wing was the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
And here lies the basis for the historians’ concern: The OUN was a deeply antisemitic organization, and the militias it set up in the summer of 1941 were actively involved in the wave of anti-Jewish pogroms that swept dozens of localities in western Ukraine in the days immediately following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The most recent studies suggest that thousands, perhaps even as many as tens of thousands, of Jews were murdered in this wave of violence.
While Nazi Germany recognized the collaborationist states set up by Slovak and Croat ultra-nationalists in 1939 and 1941, it had no intention of granting Ukraine independence. OUN-Nazi relations soon soured, and it top leaders were taken into custody. After Stalingrad, when it became clear that the Axis powers would lose the war, the OUN broke with the Nazis and took up arms on its own in early 1943, this time targeting the Polish minority in western Ukraine, carrying out massacres of at least 70,000 Poles and thousands of Jews. After the war, the OUN and UPA fought the Soviets, and this is the primary reason these organizations are currently being glorified in today’s Ukraine, where their active participation in Holocaust crimes remains a political taboo.
The current conflict with Russia has further radicalized the Ukrainian approach to historical memory.
In May 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed a package of laws, one of which outlaws “disrespect” for “fighters for Ukrainian statehood in the 20th century.” This law, 2538-1, does not stipulate a punishment, but its sister law, 2558, which bans “Soviet propaganda,” makes this offense punishable by five to 10 years’ imprisonment.
In September 2016, when President Reuven Rivlin visited Ukraine for the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre of September 29-30, 1941, he delivered an address in the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in which he particularly criticized glorification of the OUN in today’s Ukraine.
Viatrovych, who denies the OUN’s involvement in the Holocaust and disputes the antisemitic nature of the organization, publicly accused President Rivlin of regurgitating “Soviet myths.” Viatrovych is in a particularly weak position to make such accusations, as his campaign to promote the OUN and UPA has been characterized by a heavy-handed mythologizing of the past. Among many other things, Viatrovych has asserted that the UPA assassinated the leader of the German SA, Viktor Lutze (who in reality died in a car crash in Potsdam), and has distributed a well-known postwar OUN forgery claiming that a Jewish nurse, Stella Krentsbakh (or Kreutzbach) supposedly survived the Holocaust “thanks to God and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.”
As late as last month, Viatrovych’s UINR launched yet another mass campaign, “UPA – A subjugated people’s response,” aimed at lionizing the organization by presenting it as an anti-Nazi resistance group. Even though recent studies demonstrate that over 70% of its officer corps consisted of former servicemen in pro-German collaborationist formations, and its supreme commander served as an officer in the Schutzmannschaft (Nazi auxiliary police) until January 1943, the ongoing campaign insists that the UPA killed more than 12,427 “German Nazis” and up to 18,000 German and Axis soldiers in all.
These numbers are inventions, without any factual basis.
Yet perhaps most disconcertingly, this past March, Viatrovych inaugurated a memorial to a prominent member of the OUN, the poet Olena Teliha, on the site of the Babi Yar massacre.
Teliha was an enthusiastic admirer of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and envisioned a totalitarian government for Ukraine. In the fall of 1941, she worked on the editorial board of Ukrains’ke Slovo, a fiercely antisemitic collaborationist newspaper under German control. In 1942, the German authorities cracked down on the OUN, and Teliha and several dozen Ukrainian radical nationalists were executed. No one knows where.
In the 1970s, as the Holocaust was entering public consciousness in the West, émigré nationalists started to claim that Teliha had been shot at Babi Yar. While this claim has never been substantiated, the UINR not only endorses this myth, it is cited as the reason a big bronze monument to the OUN activist was placed at the site of the single largest anti-Jewish massacre during World War II – despite the fact that current research suggests that members of the OUN were among the perpetrators of that very massacre.
A NUMBER OF academics (including the authors of this commentary), specialists in Holocaust history, expressed serious concerns about the wisdom of providing Viatrovych a platform to promote the OUN and UPA at a conference dedicated the Holocaust in Ukraine, especially since the censorship laws he helped draft had been used to mute criticism of the OUN and UPA in Ukraine.
Academically, his apologia for these groups have been sharply criticized in a number of peer-reviewed journals as falling short of academic standards. Viatrovych himself has yet to publish his first peer-reviewed article. The platform for his frantic memory activism has been the OUN-affiliated TsDVR publishing house, run by his wife, and propaganda campaigns by the UINR, in addition to the above-mentioned censorship laws.
Viatrovych’s role in misleading the Ukrainian public and disseminating a false and misleading narrative of the role of the OUN is, by now, well documented. His politicizing of history has complicated Ukraine’s relations with Poland, Israel and the European Union.
An open, honest and truthful engagement of the wartime role of the OUN and UPA is unlikely as long as Viatrovych runs the UINR. Providing this government propagandist a platform at an international scholarly forum not only risks legitimizing his activities, it does harm to scholarly research.
Per Anders Rudling is an associate professor of history at Lund University in Sweden, and a senior visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His most recent book, written together with Ruta Vanagaite,
Musiskiai: Kelione su Priesu (Our People: Journey With an Enemy), which deals with Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes, was recently published in Lithuania and Poland and will appear in Hebrew (Yediot Aharonot) in late 2017.
An annotated version of this article is available from the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center: